Neither Haredi nor Modern Orthodox: Defining Chabad On Their Own Terms

Neither Haredi nor Modern Orthodox: Defining Chabad On Their Own Terms

330px-Haredi_JudaismDefining the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has been a thorn in the side of Jewish sociologists since at least the 1960s. Chabad does not fit into any of the neat categories used by those studying contemporary Orthodoxy. It is very clear to those studying the movement that while the group is essentially a Hasidic sect, it cannot be simply labeled as “Haredi” as one may comfortably do with groups like Satmar, Bobov and Belz. On the other hand, it would be a quite a stretch to count the movement as part of the “modern Orthodox.”

The more sociological categories for contemporary Orthodoxy are those of “church” and “sect,” better known as the church-sect typology. These two technical categories should not be confused for their non-sociological definitions and are measured as ideal forms of religious organization. The categories are used by sociologists to explain the fundamental differences between the modern Orthodox from the Haredi. Again, Chabad slips between the two labels as the institutions and members of the Chabad movement cannot all fit into either category. Israel-Jerusalem_Day

Simply put, Chabad cannot be a “sect” in the sociological definition of the term as the Chabad houses, and the Jews who belong to them, are not isolationist by any measure, but rather one of the most inclusive forms of Orthodox institutions. On the other hand, Chabad communities display much of the same patterns as other Haredi communities (members may be very devout, insular and rejecting of the secular world), thus striking itself out as a “church” for not compromising its ideals to ensure greatest social cohesion.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Charles Liebman, the late American-Israeli sociologist from his 1965 essay in the American Jewish Year Book, “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life” where he lays out an interesting definition of Chabad:

“The relationship of its followers to the Lubavitcher movement may best be described as one of concentric circles around the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, with the inner circle located predominantly, but not exclusively, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where the Rebbe lives and the headquarters of the movement is located….”

“The phenomenon of non-Orthodox Hasidim (President Zalman Shazar of Israel is the outstanding example) is troublesome to many in the Orthodox camp. They wonder how a presumably ultra-Orthodox leader can find such affinity with and arouse such sympathy among unobservant Jews, and whether he has not in fact compromised some essential demands of Orthodoxy in order to attract this great following.”

“The Lubavitcher movement, however, can only be understood on its own terms, and it does in fact stand outside the Orthodox camp in many respects. The movement does not recognize political or religious distinctions within Judaism. It has refused to cooperate formally with any identifiable organization or institution. It recognizes only two types of Jew, the fully observant and devout Lubavitcher Jew and the potentially devout and observant Lubavitcher Jew. This statement is often cited as a charming aphorism. In fact, it has tremendous social and political consequences. In every Jew, it is claimed, a spark of the holy can be found. The function of the Lubavitcher emissaries who are sent all over the world is to find that spark in each Jew and kindle it. From the performance of even a minor mitzvah, they argue, greater observance may follow. Thus, every Jew is recognized as sacred, but no Jew and certainly no institution outside the Lubavitcher movement is totally pure. Consequently the Lubavitcher movement can make use of allies for particular purposes without compromising its position. It can follow a policy of expediency because it never confers legitimacy on those with whom it cooperates.” (pp. 80-81)

Interestingly, more recently Dr. Adam Ferziger suggested that sociologists of Jewry had exhausted the usefulness of applying the church/sect typology to Orthodoxy (that is, Orthodxy in general, not just Chabad). These two labels, states Ferziger, no longer offer accurate insight into the nature of American Orthodoxy. Among his main points for why use the typology needs to be reassessed is the changing relationship of Orthodox Jews (the “sectarians”) and non-Orthodox, that outreach (kiruv) pioneered by Chabad and the modern Orthodox have been adopted by the Haredi communities as well. Still, practically, the litvak and the hasid are still considered Haredi, the modern Orthodox remains modern Orthodox, and Chabad continues to play the misfit in the Orthodox typology.

References:

Ferziger, Adam S. “Church/sect theory and American orthodoxy reconsidered.”Ambivalent Jew—Charles S. Liebman in memoriam, ed. Stuart Cohen and Bernard Susser (2007): 107-124.

Liebman, Charles S. “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life.” The American Jewish Year Book (1965): 21-97.

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Education and Sharing Day: The Lubavitcher Rebbe Through The Eyes Of American Presidents

Education and Sharing Day: The Lubavitcher Rebbe Through The Eyes Of American Presidents

By Dovi Seldowitz

Among the interesting achievements of the Chabad movement has been the establishment of a rather peculiar annual political custom; for the past thirty odd years, the President of the United States has proclaimed Education and Sharing Day[1] on the calendar date corresponding to the Hebrew date of the eleventh of Nissan, the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The proclamation is not limited to party, both democrat and republican presidents have practiced this ritual. In fact, a number of these presidential proclamations accompanied congressional resolutions, signed by both Democrat and Republican representatives, making the recognition of the Rebbe’s one of those things the two parties can actually agree on.

A little known fact regarding this celebration is that the presidential proclamations on each successive Education and Sharing Day are not standardized. Each year, new statements are drafted for the sitting president, so, for the most part, no two proclamations will be exactly alike. Also, the themes emphasized by each president has varied somewhat. Even though the purpose of the day is to commemorate the Rebbe’s contribution and teachings regarding moral education and social responsibility, various other themes appear in the statements. Here are a small sample of the themes mentioned in various presidential proclamations:[2]

2015 – President Obama emphasized the Rebbe’s promotion of education for girls and women, noting that the Rebbe established a Jewish organization for women and directed his teachings of service and scholarship equally to young girls and boys, and quoting the Rebbe’s “there must be a girl” comment regarding educational materials that depicted only boys.
2007 – President George W. Bush noted the Rebbe’s request that society should “make a new commitment to kindness,” and that the Rebbe helped to establish education and outreach centers offering social service programs and humanitarian aid around the world.
2000 – President Clinton stated that the Rebbe’s understanding that both secular education and spiritual training contribute enormously to human development led him to provide young people with fresh opportunities for academic, social, and moral enrichment through the educational and social institutions he established, helping these young people develop into responsible and mature adults.
1992 – President George H. W. Bush stated that under the Rebbe’s leadership, members of the Lubavitch movement have worked to promote greater knowledge of Divine law, recognizing that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And that Lubavitch has promoted knowledge of the Biblical injunction to assist those who are needy.
1989-1990 – President Bush noted Chabad’s work in spreading knowledge of the Noahide Laws. The proclamation famously states that “Ethical values are the foundation for civilized society. A society that fails to recognize or adhere to them cannot endure. The principles of moral and ethical conduct that have formed the basis for all civilizations come to us, in part, from the centuries-old Seven Noahide Laws….”
1985 – President Reagan stated that the value which the Rebbe exemplifies is love: love of wisdom, love of our fellowman, and love of our Creator.
1978 – President Carter’s statement followed a congressional resolution mentioning the Rebbe’s call for a “year of education,” and includes a call for Americans to mark the day in “such manner as reflects their commitment to education and their recognition of its importance to the welfare of this Nation.”

Today, over thirty years since its inception, Education and Sharing Day is marked each year by the President of the United States, however, this day is not an event very well covered in the mainstream media. This may be due in part to its irregular commemoration, being that the Hebrew and English calendar dates are constantly in flux, or, for whatever reason, media outlets – and the general American public – have seemed to forgotten this single day on the American calendar dedicated to education. Notwithstanding the lack of this day’s public celebration among regular Americans, Education Day USA is a terrific milestone for a Chasidic group, numbering perhaps in the tens of thousands, whose leader has received this high level of attention from each American president since Jimmy Carter. As for years to come, we may expect the day to continued to be marked by unique presidential proclamations, commemorating both the Rebbe’s historic legacy as well as the concerns of the present day.

Footnotes:
[1] The day is officially titled “Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A.” though it was first titled “Education Day, U.S.A.” in 1978, and 1983 through 1991, but also called “National Day of Reflection” in 1982.
[2] See, “Proclamations: Presidents of the United States mark Education Day U.S.A.” Chabad.org.
http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/1167630/jewish/Proclamations.htm

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Passover in Chabad: Personal Transformation and Social Acceptance

Passover in Chabad: Personal Transformation and Social Acceptance

By Dovi Seldowitz

Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jewish People’s redemption from slavery in ancient Egypt, is heralded as a key Jewish festival for Jews world over. For many Jews, the Pesach Seder will be one of the only traditional Jewish events attended that year. Chabad teachings regarding Passover emphasize the message that the Jewish People’s transition from slavery to freedom is one that can be applied in one’s everyday life. Leaving Egypt (Yeztiat Mitzrayim) is understood as a human struggle to change oneself for the better, to force oneself to step beyond one’s comfort zone and strive to become a better person.[1]

Personal change is understood by sociologists as the exceptional cases in role theory. Sociologically speaking, one acts and identifies in a particular manner which is actually laid out by the society s/he lives in. To change one’s ordinary mode of behavior would require a concerted effort to change to the social setting allowing for a new form of behavior. Sociologists see personal change in terms of the individual striving to manipulate his or her personal affiliations to fortify the identities that had given him/her satisfaction in the past.[2]

What is interesting about Chabad is that transformative change is idealized and even celebrated each year, expressed in the form of the rabbinic tradition that “in each and every generation one must consider as if he or she personally left Egypt.” Chabad’s emphasis on personal transformation is reminiscent of the change sought after in psychoanalysis and other forms of therapy. In Chabad, while personal growth is advocated all year round, the message of change is especially resonant in the Chasidic teachings of Passover.

Chabad philosophy regarding personal development typically sees any change occurring as the result of the Chasid meditating on particular teachings and committing him/herself to acting in a different manner. Perhaps what is not entirely emphasized is how the Chasid plans on dealing with the social repercussions of such personal change. Can the individual’s intention to alter his or her behavior overcome the pressure exerted by his or her peers to continue acting as before?

The annual celebration of Passover in Chabad, replete with teachings of personal change and development, may assist the Chasid seeking to transform personal habits into more refined modes of behavior. A social recognition of a change imperative would allow those seeking to change to do so without the standard pressure of peer disapproval. One might find it easier to resolve to change when one’s peers generally accept that in this season one really ought to do so.

Footnotes:

[1] See for example, Eliyahu Touger, “The Exodus: An Experience of the Present As Well As the Past,” Timeless Patterns in Time, Sichos in English, 1993; Eliyahu Touger, “Sichos Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, Rosh Chodesh Shvat 5722,” Lekutei Sichot, Sichos in English, fn. 55.

[2] See, Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 119-120.

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The Multicultural Chabad: Trends of Ethnic Diversity in a Chasidic Movement

The Multicultural Chabad: Trends of Ethnic Diversity in a Chasidic Movement

By Dovi Seldowitz

Ethnicity amongst Jews may be crudely conceived as a simple divide between East and West. Eastern Jews consist of both Sephardic and various Oriental groups (referred to generally as “Mizrachim”) of the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia. The Jews of the West are the Ashkenazim originating from Russia and most European countries.[1] Chabad, a movement that began in White Russia and whose early followers may be presumed to be all Ashkenazi, has in the last century begun to blur the old lines of Jewish ethnicity in a mix of activist efforts, integrating Jews of various backgrounds under the banner of the movement.

Ethnic diversity in Chabad is fairly unique among the Chasidic movements, other groups may include non-Ashkenazi adherents, but Chabad appears to have the highest proportion of such members. Chabad Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews include those hailing from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Chabad influence is felt in various particular communities such as the Yemenite community in Israel, the Moroccan diaspora in France and Bukharian Jews in New York.

Outreach attempts by Chabad to directly reinforce attachments to Judaism amongst Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews are not recent stories. The very first Chabad emissary sent out by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was to Morocco, in 1950 (the Moroccan effort was actually first initiated by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, shortly before his passing).[2] Chabad activities in Bukharian communities began even earlier with the emissaries of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneersohn, prior to World War One.[3]

For sociologists and other social scientists studying Chabad, a significant but limited amount of scholarly material exists on the state of ethnicity in Chabad; only a single study examines Chabad’s ethnic diversity using quantitative measures.[4] Other sources examine the interactions between Chabad and a particular Sephardi or Mizrachi group.[5] Chabad’s attitude toward Jews of various ethnic backgrounds is quite inclusive; Chabad’s outreach and its Chasidic philosophy has lead to the integration of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi families in daily life in the Chabad community. These families have been joined together by sharing a common ideology, participating in the same communal events, educating their children in the same schools and allowing them to join in marriage. What has yet to be explored is the existence of a cross-acculturation, how traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi life and culture may have influenced or been incorporated and adopted by Chabad communities.

The Chabad movement has long sought to strengthen the identities of Jews in Sephardi and Mizrachi communities. This multicultural trend in Chabad has been the result of emphasizing the movement’s Chasidic philosophy and ideology over its geographic roots. Chabad communities themselves have become ethnically diverse on account of the movement’s outreach efforts which led to the integration of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Chasidim. This initiative that began some hundred years ago has translated today into the multicultural heritage of many Chabad Chasidim today.

Footnotes:
[1] This crude geographic measure is obviously limited as many Ashkenazi Jews migrated to Israel (and other Middle Eastern countries) centuries ago, and non-Ashkenazim have lived in various parts of Europe alongside their Ashkenazi brethren. This measure also omits African-Jewish groups.
[2] See, “1950: Leadership,” The Life and Times of the Rebbe, TheRebbe.org (Chabad.org).
[3] See, Naftali Loewenthal, “Lubavitch Hasidim,” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (yivoencyclopedia.org), August 27, 2010.
[4] See, Charles Shahar, Main Report: A Comprehensive Study of the Ultra Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal (2003), Montreal, Canada: Federation CJA (Montreal), (2003): pp. 7–33. Shahar’s study found that one in four Chabad households in Montreal included at least one Sephardi parent.
[5] See, Moshe Shokeid, Children of Circumstances: Israeli Emigrants in New York, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988, pp. 139-160; Laurence D. Loeb, “HaBaD and Habban: 770’s Impact on a Yemenite Jewish Community in Israel,” New World Hasidim: Ethnographic Studies of Hasidic Jews in America, ed. J.S. Belcove-Shalin, SUNY Press, (1995): 69-85.

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Jobs in Chabad: The Nature of Employment in Chabad Institutions and Organizations

Jobs in Chabad: The Nature of Employment in Chabad Institutions and Organizations

By Dovi Seldowitz

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has long been regarded as a forward thinking Chasidic movement, preaching the fusion of the Jewish traditions of old in the most modern formats. The nature of Chabad’s outreach has led to the creation of numerous individual organizations and institutions, and along with the founding and expansion of these organizations has come the creation of various employment opportunities. Working at a Chabad organization or institution may perhaps appear similar to working at any other religiously affiliated job, the key difference being in the services provided, but certain aspects of the working environment may be said to be particular to the Chabad context.

While each individual working experience at Chabad obviously differs radically from each other. Some workers or volunteers would no doubt find their jobs quite rewarding, others might be frustrated by the inefficiencies in that given organization; some have an enjoyable time working, others do not. The underlying patterns in Chabad jobs have a lot to do with general factors, such as the geographic location of the workplace, the allocated budget, the personalities of the administrators, to give but a few variables. But, we may speculate, what is unique to the Chabad workplace is the common bond and general vision those employed at Chabad share with one another.

Work at Chabad is largely educational in nature, in fact, one writer has thought to define the Chabad movement itself as an “educational organization.”[1] The nature of such education is Jewish by nature, but also Chasidic (in various settings). It stands to reason that those working at Chabad would have to have acquired a significant level of Jewish education prior to working there. Those these levels would vary for different people, the very fact that Chabad is mostly concerned with matters pertaining to Jewish education, Chabad employees may be assumed to have all studied Judaism intensively, almost as a prerequisite for their employment. Furthermore, if the particular Chabad organization or institution deals specifically with Chasidic education (e.g. a community school or camp), one can almost but be assured that the average employee would have that knowledge as well.

This generalized understanding of the nature of the Chabad workplace would provide an obvious point of reference for those wishing to work at Chabad, as well as those in administrative positions. If Jewish and Chasidic education is the prime service being offered, it would stand to reason that scholastic excellence be a essential criteria for such employment, though the job requirements may not always involving formal teaching. The challenge for administrators becomes where the applicant has either strong background in Jewish education but is poorly skilled, or, has poor knowledge of Jewish matters but is quite competent. Where the ideal choice is absent, tough decisions will be made, severely impacting the experiences of those working at a Chabad organization and those they serve.

Working at Chabad usually means, in one way or another, working in an educational setting. Regardless of one’s job at a Chabad organization or institution, knowledge of Judaic and Chasidic subjects will be highly prized. But it is not certain the degree to which that knowledge would be measured against the actual job knowledge required for that role. How much Jewish education versus standardized job skills are required to be an employee of Chabad? While each work position might require a different knowledge balance, we may be certain that Jewish education, to whatever degree, will always be present in the Chabad workplace.

Footnotes:

[1] See Aryeh Solomon, The Educational Teachings of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Jason Aronson, 2000, p. 17.

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Birth in Chabad: Magical Amulets and Other Customs

Birth in Chabad: Magical Amulets and Other Customs

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chabad customs concerning childbirth are part of an eclectic source of material. When taking into account customs relating to pregnancy, childbirth, circumcision and other birth-related rituals, Chabad birth customs include dozens of individual practices. These customs range from commonsensical ideas, to mystical rites, from individual family traditions, to standardized legalistic guidelines. A good deal of Chabad customs surrounding birth overlap the customs of other Orthodox and Chasidic communities, however, the custom particular to Chabad is the use of a Kabbalistic mandala popularly known as a “‘shir hamaalot‘ card” after its inscription of a Psalm beginning with those words. The Chabad is known for promoting this particular birth custom, after it being heavily encouraged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.[1]

This Chabad practice of the “‘shir hamaalot‘ card” is not entirely original; both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities have a long history of including magical practices, including amulets, at the birth of a Jewish child. While those medieval rites have waned in modern times, Chabad’s public emphasis in using a Kabbalistic birth amulet makes the movement stand out within general Orthodoxy, as Chabad promotes these long-forgotten Jewish customs even in contemporary birth settings where Western medicine is typically placed ahead of all other alternative forms of healing.

Sociologists have noted the contemporary trend towards the medicalization of childbirth. What was once a purely social and/or personal event now specifically takes place within a medical context.[2] Chabad’s stance on placing a Jewish mandala in a hospital birthing room allows Jewish families to reclaim an increasingly medicalized event as their own personal moment, placing Western medicine alongside the traditional belief of divine protection.

Another custom quite particular to Chabad relates to the birth of a baby girl. Chabad customs include exclaiming traditional congratulations for the child, making sure to emphasize female Torah study. The congratulations is that the child will be raised “to (study) Torah, to marry and to (perform) good deeds.”[1] This egalitarian attribution of the value of Torah study for both males and females is not restricted to Chabad, but Chabad has emphasized this idea in a particularly powerful manner, as this custom emphasizes female Torah study from the time of one’s birth.

Chabad’s emphasis on particular childbirth customs reveal some of the movement’s core values. The use of a Kabbalistic amulet points to Chabad’s mission to raise general awareness and pride of Jewish traditions, even in settings not entirely conducive to such practices. And the Chabad’s stance on the involvement of women in Jewish life is also revealed in some of the customs surrounding the birth of baby girls. Overall, Chabad childbirth customs can be seen within the greater context of the movement’s emphasis on keeping Jewish traditions alive today and reinforcing them with the particular ideological approach of Chabad Chasidus.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Avraham Yeshaya Holtzberg, “Kovetz Minhagim: Customs of Pregnancy and Birth,” Shimon Neubort trans, The Jewish Woman, Chabad.org.

[2] See for example, Alyson Henley-Einion, “The medicalisation of childbirth,” The Social Context of Birth, Caroline Squire ed. Radcliffe Publishing, (2003): 173-186; Gay Becker and Robert D. Nachtigall, “Eager for medicalisation: the social production of infertility as a disease.” Sociology of Health & Illness 14, no. 4 (1992): 456-471.

Chabad Behind Bars: A Chasidic Response to the Penal System

Chabad Behind Bars: A Chasidic Response to the Penal System

By Dovi Seldowitz

Of the various outreach efforts Chabad is known for, some are regarded for their high public profile (menorah lightings, Passover sedarim, etc.), while others involve less hype (like translating Chasidic texts); some Chabad activities emphasize individual involvement and commitment (such as encouraging adult men to don tefillin), and some seek for entire community participation (holiday services, Torah study classes, etc.). As much as each of these types of activities vary in terms of audience size and publicity, they stand separate from the unique outreach initiatives sponsored by the Chabad movement, including Chabad’s work with prisoners and inmates. Jews, like every other group includes members who have committed crime, been prosecuted and sentenced to years in jail; Chabad is among the few Jewish organizations involved in caring for the needs of Jews in prisons.

Aleph Institute, a Chabad organization based in Miami, Florida, has devoted itself to assisting Jewish prisoners, helping them cope with life in prison as well as reintegration into a life after imprisonment. Few Jewish movements claim a stake on this area of Jewish need. All too often organized Jewish communities are in the position where it is easy to overlook the Jewish incarcerated. In this instance, Chabad has filled a serious void in the care and responsibility the Jewish community has towards imprisoned Jews.

Through Chabad’s Aleph Institute, Jewish prisoners are finding themselves with the critical support they need to keep them from sliding back to crime following their release. Aleph’sinmate rehabilitation program has been recognized as a success story in terms of reducing rates of recidivism – the tendency for former inmates to continue crime even after their time in prison – and providing support to Jewish prisoners long after their release.[1] But in truth, long before Chabad’s formal offender rehabilitation program, individual Chasidim have gone to local prisons to lead High Holiday services, knowing that without their effort (travelling to prisons while their friends and families celebrated at home) these prisoners would not celebrate the Jewish festivals.[2]

Social scientists have long noted that offender treatment programs cannot expect their attendees to stay out of trouble completely. On average, such programs reach a success rate of 50-60%. Originally, when this research was first published, the tendency was to ‘see the glass as half full’, but with time, and continuing research showing no change in success rates, the perspective turned pessimistic, seeing the same glass as ‘half empty’.[3]

For Chabad, however, no good deed is too small and no outreach program is considered a failure for not attracting enough participants. The movement’s attitude towards all forms of Jewish outreach has long been framed as, primarily, a spiritual endeavor. This positive attitude towards the significance of even the most minimal achievements was the result of the emphasis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who insisted that each and every good deed, no matter how seemly small, helped the world become a better place.

Chabad’s offender treatment programming has helped inspired those Jews who are truly in need of support and encouragement. Chabad Chasidim stand out for their dedication to imprisoned Jews, helping them remain attached to the Jewish tradition through incarceration. It is the profound dedication to assisting a fellow Jew, coupled with the forcefully positivistic perspective that each good deed is a world of its own, that leads Chabad to achieve success in rehabilitating former prisoners, allowing these men and women to discover joy in life and happiness in living.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Dovid Zaklikowski, “Aleph Institute Lowers Recidivism Rate, Says Chief Justice,” Lubavitch.com, November 16, 2014.
[2] See for example, Lis Harris, Holy Days: The World of The Hasidic Family, Summit Books, New York: 1985, p. 15.
[3] See, James Bonta and D. A. Andrews. “Risk-need-responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation.” Rehabilitation 6 (2007): 1-22.